George Washington, Businessman

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In 1769 Washington’s wheat crop was six times that of 1764, and in 1770 even larger. In addition, his new method of farming took so much less of everyone’s time that he was able to diversify his economic base. By putting in the Potomac more seines and a schooner built by his own men, he enlarged his fisheries, selling shad by the thousand and herring by the hundred thousand. He increased his number of weavers so that they could work for all comers. Beside his old mill, which he kept in operation, he erected a commercial mill that began grinding in 1770, giving him another service to sell to the neighborhood.

Washington was demonstrating that a Virginia planter could, by self-reliance exercised within the borders of the colony, reverse the usual balance of trade. Far from going into further debt to England, he was sending surplus cash there. In 1765 he paid Cary interest on 1,500 pounds. By 1766 he reduced this to 1,300 pounds, and by 1770 to 1,000 pounds.

As Washington perfected his organization, he prospered. Yet the many writers who claim that by the Revolution he was the richest man in Virginia (or in all America) are guilty of gross exaggeration. The usually accurate contemporary chronicler, “Old Soldier,” stated in 1778 that “there are a hundred men in Virginia who have better estates than Mr. Washington, nay 500.”

During his fortieth year, Washington paid quit rents on 12,463 acres. This sounds stupendous, but not a single acre was in the most valuable neighborhoods.

He had inherited from his father ten or more slaves, and an additional eighteen had come with Mount Vernon. Not counting the “dower slaves” who were attached to the Custis estate, he paid taxes in 1760 on forty-nine, in 1765 on seventy-eight, in 1770 on eighty-seven, and in 1775 on one hundred and thirty-five. Since his mounting sense of the immorality of the traffic made him stop buying slaves in 1772, this last jump was largely through natural increase. Births continuing greatly to outnumber deaths in his slave quarters, Washington had by mid-Revolution many more slaves than he could gainfully employ. This plethora reduced his prosperity, since his principles now forbade his selling any slaves without their permission, a permission they invariably refused to give.

Yet we need not drop a tear for an impoverished Washington. He engaged successfully in large operations, was in no foreseeable danger of being sold out, and could afford, although on a far from unlimited scale, both generosities and luxuries.

When in 1768 the Custis coach had “run its race,” Washington could not conceive of replacing an object of such elegance anywhere but in England. He adhered so far to his new economics that he paid the cost—it came to £315.13.6—not in exports or credit but by sending cash across the ocean. Yet it was to Cary (who with some irony may be considered a father of American independence) that he entrusted buying a coach “in the newest taste … to be made of the best seasoned wood, and by a celebrated workman.” He preferred green “unless any other color [is] more in vogue.” His arms were to be emblazoned on the sides along with any other ornaments “that may not have a heavy or tawdry look.”

As it came off the boat, the vehicle Gary sent him gleamed, a vision of transatlantic elegance elevating provincial America. However, the English builder had not bothered to use seasoned wood for export. Before the coach had been in use two months, some panels had slipped out of their mouldings and others had split from end to end. It was an object lesson. If only Washington had ordered his coach in Philadelphia, where an American maker would not have despised and cheated his American market!